The pressure of a big deadline doesn’t stress you out. Packing for a cross-country move doesn’t phase you. Yet, when all is said and done, you feel sick to your stomach and feel worse.
This cycle is referred to as post-stress illness or “the let-down effect.” This is a pattern where individuals become ill or chronic condition symptoms are triggered — not during — but after a stressful time passes.
Why is it that the anxiety aftermath is so much worse after the pressure passes? To understand the reason this happens, it’s important to keep in mind how stress affects the body.
The Aftermath: Effects on Mind and Body After a Stressful Period
During periods of acute stress, the body releases specific hormones, such as cortisol (a glucocorticoid) and adrenaline, that prepare the body to react in a fight or flight response. By releasing these glucocorticoids and other stress hormones, the immune system essentially sets up its own version of FBI surveillance — which may trigger past infections that have been biding time.
After a stressful period, have you ever had an embarrassing cold sore make an appearance? This is due to herpes simplex 1 being triggered. This pattern brings up fatigue, fever and sore throat by triggering the Epstein-Barr virus in a similar way. It’s also possible to suffer from a full-fledged panic attack, and that can lead to a trip to the emergency room.
Studies have recently linked this pattern of post-stress illness and perceived stress with occurrences of pain flare-ups and other chronic symptoms. Research from Taiwan in 2015 notes that holidays and Sundays have an increase in emergency room admissions for peptic ulcers when compared to weekdays.
Another 2014 study, from researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (New York), followed migraine sufferers who kept track of their symptoms and patterns of stress for three months in an electronic diary. As it turns out, higher stress levels didn’t have much of an effect on migraine occurrences, according to sufferer reports. Rather, a decrease in perceived stress was linked with migraine occurrences, with the most increased risk of migraine development happening within six hours of stress reduction.
Post-stress illness happens more often that you might think, and it is linked scientifically to flare-ups of chronic ailments. Those who suffer from health issues like migraines, asthma, skin conditions, digestive disorders and autoimmune diseases likely experience a similar pattern as participants measured in the migraine study.
Prevent Post-Stress Illness Before It Strikes
Keeping a record of stressful periods, your emotional and mental responses as well as flare-ups of particular symptoms may help you find a link and prevent post-stress illness before it strikes. Fortunately, there are other preventative measures you can try now:
- Take it slow, and take breaks. That adrenaline rush is an excellent push to get you to make a deadline at work, in your perspective. While that may true, it also leads to the crash you experience after the deadline. If you’ve been staring at a computer screen for hours, get up and find an excuse to walk around.Don’t go to bed reading emails — go to bed reading a book instead. Break big projects into smaller projects, and reward yourself for each milestone completed.
- Eat and drink. Be wary of binge-eating, skipping meals and drinking soda or alcohol. Drink a tall glass of water instead of checking your work emails first thing after you wake up. Little rewards like chocolate are nice, but be cautious of consuming a bag of chips for dinner.Know your triggers, especially if they are linked to food and stress-eating. A nutritionist can help you find snack items that fuel you and prevent your flare-ups. Split up big meals into smaller meals to receive your nutrition throughout the day. Plus, this gives you a refueling break between stressful tasks.
- Go for a walk, and get some exercise. Don’t let your legs fall asleep or your hands cramp up. Get up and get active! Exercise is good for the body, and a change of scenery helps with positive perspective.
- Get regular, restful sleep. Keep a regular sleep schedule to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Avoiding technology an hour before bed and keeping the lights low helps your eyes to adjust and prepare for sleep.
If you’re an early riser and caffeine gets you going, avoid coffee in the afternoon, since it could be keeping you awake at night. Drink more water, instead. In addition, find activities that relax you before bed for a nighttime ritual.
The aftermath of pressure often hits when you least expect it. Don’t find yourself in the emergency room due to a panic attack. For those who experience post-stress illness, it’s vital to analyze your work-life balance to get enough nutrition, sleep and breaks.
Learn how the pattern of the let-down effect influences your mind and body. Then, you’re equipped with knowledge to be better prepared for the aftermath of stress and no longer feel worse.
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